Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Really Grand Day at the National Zoo

I've been going to the Smithsonian National Zoo since I was a child. Every summer, mom would take us down to the zoo. It would be crowded and swelteringly hot, as July and August usually are in Maryland. My sister, thinking she was clever, would tease me about leaving me with the apes, and I'd trudge along behind mom and my sister, sulking. I have fonder memories of the zoo from going there on dates -- a great place to go when you're young and on a limited budget. And of course, I've taken my two boys there many times. Now I've returned with my husband on a day out for the two of us. It's changed over the years -- the elephant area has grown exponentially. But the big cats are stilthere, although the white tiger from my childhood has gone.

Zoos aren't just for children. It's a great place to spend the day, no matter how young, or old, you are! The National Zoological Park, commonly known as the National Zoo, is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, and as part of the Smithsonian Institution, does not charge admission. That makes it a great deal! The National Zoo is home to 1,800 animals of 300 different species. When you think of the National Zoo, the first animals that come to mind are the giant pandas (and their offspring), but there is so much more there. Make sure you check out the great apes, the lions and tigers, the elephants, the amazing birds, the seals and sea lions, and one of my favorites -- the prairie dogs.

The Zoo was created by an Act of Congress in 1889 for “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” A year later, it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution. Plans for the Zoo were drawn up by Samuel Langley, third Secretary of the Smithsonian; William Temple Hornaday, noted conservationist and head of the Smithsonian’s vertebrate division; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the premier landscape architect of his day (think Central Park in New York City, for example). Together they designed a new zoo to exhibit animals that would also serve as a refuge for wildlife, such as bison and beaver, that were rapidly vanishing from North America.

In its first half century the National Zoo, like most zoos around the world, focused principally on exhibiting one or two representatives of as many exotic species as possible. Animals were relatively easy to obtain from the wild, and just as easy to replace when they died. 

In the early 1960s, the Zoo turned its attention to breeding and studying threatened and endangered species. Expanding knowledge about the needs of zoo animals and commitment to their well-being has changed the look of the National Zoo. Enclosures became larger and tried to incorporate landscape and habitat the animals were familiar with.

One of my favorite birds is the pelican. They're just amazing birds, lovely and graceful and kind of gawky, all at the same time. One pelican, his (her??) wings injured, calls the harbor seal exhibit home.

When the weather turns cool is the ideal time to enjoy the National Zoo. Animals tend to be more active in the cooler weather, and everyone enjoys the day a little more! It's also less crowded overall, although by afternoon on a lovely autumn day it was starting to fill up.

Know before you go #1: Save yourself some money and pack a picnic. Eating at the food concessions can quickly add up.

Know before you go #2: The easiest way to get to the zoo is by metro. However if you do drive in, then go early to ensure you can find one of the limited parking spots.

Know before you go #3: Download the zoo app and enjoy the zoo from your phone! For the elephant cam and panda cam go here.

Know before you go #4: Sitting entirely on a hillside, the Zoo makes for a steep hike. Wear comfortable footwear so you can fully enjoy your day at the Zoo.

Getting there: 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008

Hours: The National Zoo is open every day of the year except December 25. Winter hours begin early November and run thru end of March. Exact dates may vary each year. Grounds 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (6 p.m. closing in winter); visitors center and concessions 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (4:30 p.m. closing in winter).

Dogs: Service dogs yes; pets no.


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Updated February 2019

Monday, November 23, 2015

My Top 4 Dog Friendly Day Trips

Periodically (i.e., whenever the whim strikes me, I'll post my top picks. This is another in the series My Top Picks posts. Links to the original posts will be embedded in the text. Let me know what you think of this new blog feature!

4. Tail Lights at Columbia, MD's Symphony of Lights
A lot of Christmas lights displays offer a night when you can walk your dog around the grounds. I loved walking the Symphony of Lights with our dogs -- so much fun, and a cool way to enjoy the lights at a slower pace. A plus: proceeds are usually donated to a good cause!

3. Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry, WV, is a little town almost forgotten by today's modern pace. The National Park Service maintains most of the town closest to the Shenandoah River, so the town has retained its historical charm. Most of the stores and many of the restaurants will accommodate dogs, especially during warmer weather when the patios are open. It can't get much better: history and my beagles!

2. Sugarloaf Mountain to hike, then to Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard
Sugarloaf Mountain Park offers several interesting hikes that lead to gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. At the base, the Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard offers tastings at a reasonable price, and you can enjoy a bottle of wine and your picnic on the patio with your dog. So maybe yes, wine and my beagles is perhaps better than history and my beagles!

1. Westchester River Walk in Tarrytown, NY
Bordering the Hudson River north of New York City, the Tarrytown River Walk offers beautiful views of the river, glimpses of NYC in the distance, interesting bridge views, and even a lighthouse. With a steady breeze off the river, it's makes a hot day seem cooler than it really is. It's a popular path, but pretty and worth your time to walk it. From a dog's perspective, it offers interesting sniffs, opportunities to socialize with other dogs, and an opportunity to tire oneself out. A tired dog is a happy dog!

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bolivar Heights Battlefield

The Battle of Bolivar Heights, which took place on October 16, 1861, was an early battle of the Civil War. During the battle, Confederate States Army colonel Turner Ashby attempted to take the strategic Bolivar Heights from Union colonel John White Geary. After a 6-hour battle, the Confederates were ultimately repulsed, and the Union planted flags on the ridge.

During our visit, I was struck by the incredible natural beauty of the former battlefield. You can look over to the mountain pass through which the mighty Potomac River, recently joined by the Shenandoah River, flows. The distinctive bridge carrying U.S. 340 across the river is easy to spot. On the opposite side of Bolivar Heights, you overlook a valley, with dramatic views of farmland and neighborhoods.

If you're a student of Civil War history, then I recommend visiting Bolivar Heights, as well as Harpers Ferry, which is one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon. Make sure you allow some time to explore the town as well -- the town adjacent to the national park offers some quaint boutiques as well as some tasty cafes, many of which are dog-friendly in warmer weather (although the shuttle over from the Visitor's Center parking lot is NOT dog-friendly, complicating matters somewhat).

Harpers Ferry also sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. It's also where John Brown disastrously attacked the historic Federal arsenal (founded by President George Washington in 1799). A bridge for the critical Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crosses the Potomac there; a footbridge runs adjacent, via which you can access the C&O Canal towpath.

Harpers Ferry and Bolivar Heights combine nationally significant history and the scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Potomac and Shenandoah river valleys. It doesn't get any better than that!

Harpers Ferry was virtually indefensible, dominated on all sides by higher ground. To the west, the ground rose gradually for about a mile and a half to Bolivar Heights, a plateau 668 feet high, that stretches from the Potomac to the Shenandoah. To the south, across the Shenandoah, Loudoun Heights overlooks from 1,180 feet. And to the northeast, across the Potomac, the southernmost extremity of Elk Ridge forms the 1,476-foot-high crest of Maryland Heights. A Union soldier wrote at the time that if these three heights could not be held, Harpers Ferry would be "no more defensible than a well bottom."

Despite its strategic importance to Harpers Ferry, Union incompetence prevailed after this initial battle. In later confrontations, the commanders of Union troops based in Harpers Ferry would ignore not just Bolivar Heights, but Loudon Heights and Maryland Heights as well, resulting in Harpers Ferry falling into Confederate control. In fact, Harpers Ferry was so important that the Union and Confederate forces would tussle over it through the entire conflict, and it changed hands not just once, but a total of 27 times. It must have sucked to have lived there!

Bolivar Heights is part of the Harpers Ferry National Park, and makes a natural pairing with a visit to the nearby town. By the way, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (NHP) is considered one of the best walking parks in America, so come prepared: wear comfortable walking or hiking shoes.

Because you can drive to the top of Bolivar Heights, it's easier to access than, say, Maryland Heights, which incorporates a strenuous hike which even Abraham Lincoln couldn't climb when he visited his troops! However, a friendly guest blogger undertook the strenuous hike on behalf of this blog fairly recently. Check out the blog post about his two hikes here and here.

Harpers Ferry NHP encompasses almost 4,000 acres in West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia; several other national parks also intersect here. As the mid-point of the 2,178-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT), Harpers Ferry is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the headquarters for the AT. And of course, you can also walk along the 184.5-mile-long towpath of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park by crossing the footbridge over the Potomac River; this is also how you access the rather strenuous trail leading to the top of Maryland Heights. The Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail overlays the C&O Canal and continues north all the way to Pittsburgh, PA.

Know before you go #1: Walk the Bolivar Heights trail to gain a full understanding of the battle.

Know before you go #2: Harpers Ferry NHP has about 20 miles of hiking trails. The trails vary from easy, riverside strolls to 4-mile hikes across Civil War battlefields to eight-mile adventures to the tops of mountains. The National Park Service maintains a helpful webpage that provides the trail information needed to plan the perfect hike: location, length and intensity (easy, moderate, difficult); highlights (views, wildlife, historical significance); hiking time (based on one mile hiked per 30 minutes).
Getting there: 171 Shoreline Dr, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425

Hours: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is open year round with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day; dawn through dusk. Shuttles from the visitors center to Harpers Ferry itself run on an abbreviated schedule.


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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Biking the Battlefields

Each time I visit the Gettysburg National Military Park I learn something new. This Sunday morning, however, my intent was just to focus on the bike ride and scenery, and not try to read the signs or follow a narrative to understand how the battle unfolded. The day before the weather had been rainy and a bit miserable. The week before that, unbearably hot. The morning was perfect biking weather and all we wanted to do was to enjoy the lovely scenery of the rolling farmland and battlefield.

We started at the visitor's center -- with ample parking, it seemed like the ideal place to start. We turned left onto Rt 30, riding through the famous fences of Picketts Charge, then turned left again into the National Military Park. We rode along the monuments and cannon, enjoying the fresh morning sun. It was pretty early, so only the most dedicated tourists were driving along the lane.

Some more photos showing scenes of the ride will share the experience better than my words so ...

Tip #1: The later in the day you ride, the more traffic you will encounter. Ride with care. Wear a bike helmet. Obey the rules of the road.

Tip #2: Admission to the park is free, although if you visit the visitor's center, there's a nominal fee.

Getting there: Gettysburg National Military Park is located in Adams County, Pennsylvania. The museum and visitor center is located at 1195 Baltimore Pike (Route 97) with a back entrance from the Taneytown Road (State Rt. 134). From North or South, follow US 15 to Gettysburg and watch for signs to direct you to the National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center. The signs are near the exit at Rt. 97. Go north on Route 97 and look for the visitor center entrance, which will be on your left at the stoplight. From East or West, drive into Gettysburg on US Rt. 30, turn South on Baltimore Street (Rt. 97), and follow signs to the entrance of the visitor center, which will be on your right at the stoplight.

Hours: The park is open daily from 6 am to 10 pm April 1 to October 31, and 6 am to 7 pm November 1 to March 31. Park hours are strictly enforced.


Read about other ways to experience this important battlefield:

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Updated July 2020

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

InSite Gettysburg Brings the Battlefield into Clearer Focus

This is fourth of a series focusing on Gettysburg, PA as a great day trip destination.

I'm always intrigued by different ways to tour the National Military Park at Gettysburg. I loved the segway tour of the battlefield my husband and I went on a couple years ago, but that was as much for the fun of riding a segway as for the battlefield tour itself. I've tried the static driving tour, where you read the information provided in a pamphlet by the Visitor's Center (this was years ago). I also have a CD driving tour that I've tried a few times and have enjoyed. There are horse rides through the battlefield as well as a variety of other options I haven't tried yet (but probably will if I continue writing this blog in the coming years).

The McPherson barn. So close to the battlefield, it served as a hospital in the aftermath of the battle.

So I was intrigued by the InSite iPad tour, which is available from the Gettysburg Heritage Center.

The tour follows the 16 stop Auto Route, GPS triggered audio plays through your car speakers as you drive or with provided portable speaker.

There are cool interactive features at every stop, including "virtual tours" if you don't want to get out and "augmented reality." ("Yeah baby, pass me some of that augmented reality -- I could use it.") No, seriously, the augmented reality part was probably one of the coolest aspects of the tour.

To use the augmented reality feature, you have to follow specific directions provided, very similar to:
Get out of your car and walk over to the signs. Stand about 6 feet to the left of the signs, facing back where you just came from.

You'll know you're positioned correctly when it starts working. As you hold up the iPad and start scanning the landscape, cartoonish figures start darting the landscape on the iPad, showing figures moving according to the battle. Unfortunately, it was raining pretty hard the day we tried the InSite tour, so we didn't give the augmented reality much of a chance to play all the way through. It was pretty cool though, the parts we saw of it!

Other features include an old time photo-booth, which both my friend and I had a lot of fun with. Poor Mary Todd Lincoln is pictured in the McD's drivethru (it was coffee break time!). I posed as a Union soldier (now my FB profile photo) and John Burns, the 67-year-old Gettysburg resident who picked up a gun and fought alongside Union troops during the battle.

Day Trip Gal in the cut out of a Union officer.

The cool thing is you don't need to own an iPad to use it, nor do you have to be a technological wizard -- even I was able to figure out how to use the tour.

The tour kit includes a fully loaded iPad in a LifeProof case and an auxiliary cord for either a speaker or your car's audio system.

Day Trip on a Budget: At a rental price of $34.95, this is definitely a day trip on a budget. You only need one per vehicle, and it's a great way for a car load of folks to tour the battlefields. Although with an inexpensive meal at one of Gettysburg's two diners or at the Blue and Grey Bar and Grill, the day trip might add up to slightly more than $50 for two people, you could easily keep the day to under a budget of $100 for a family of four.

Know before you go #1: Bring at least one passenger, to operate the tour while the driver focuses on driving.

Know before you go #2: Keep your budget down by packing a picnic and eating it while parked along the driving tour in the battlefield.

Getting there: you can pick up the InSite iPad driving tour at the Gettysburg Heritage Center at 297 Steinwehr Ave, Gettysburg.

Hours: Rental of the InSite iPad is for 5 hours. The Gettysburg Heritage Center is open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. except on major holidays.

Dogs: In your car, sure!


Check out the blog's FB page for updates on places we've visited and blogged about:!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I'd love to hear what you're doing! Email [email protected] if you're interested in being a guest-blogger!